Monday, November 24, 2014

Redefining Kingship

"For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me."  -Matthew 25: 35-36

One of my favorite philosophers is Homer…Simpson.  This eternally middle aged man from Springfield is full of nuggets of wisdom…and donuts.  One of my favorite teachings of Homer occurred during a time when he inexplicably found himself floating down a river in a cheery-picker.  With no visible way out and his daughter Lisa calling for him as she ran along the shore, Homer clasped his hands and looked up to heaven.  “I’m not normally a praying man,” he confessed, “but if you’re up there, please, save me, Superman!”

Homer "praying"

I think that the words of a man far wiser than me are appropriate for this final week of the church year.  Yesterday marked the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in what we often call Ordinary Time, which is also referred to as Christ the King Sunday, or, in some churches, Reign of Christ Sunday.  The historic reason for such a day is that this is the last Sunday of our church calendar, and so we exit the year with a reminder of Christ’s kingship over all of creation, over time and space, forever and ever, world without end. 

But what do you think of when you think of the kingship of Jesus Christ?  What images pop in your head?  What exactly does it mean for us to have Jesus as our king, and what does it mean for Jesus to be our king?

For some, I’ve noticed, it’s like Homer, who clasps his hands in his hour of need, looks up to heaven, and calls out for Superman.  After all, isn’t that what a king is suppose to do?  Isn’t a king suppose to save his people, rescue them, protect them from the enemy? 

It’s easy to think that way.  But if we really listen to Jesus as he tells this parable in Matthew’s gospel we hear a very different definition of kingship.  In this parable, which is meant to invoke images of the final judgment, the king—Jesus—tells those gathered before him that he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison.  And those who fed him, gave him something to drink, welcomed him, clothed him, took care of him, and visited him are blessed, and those who did no such thing are not so blessed. 

Does this sound like any king you know?  Does this sound like the soverign that rules over the universe?  Hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?  Doesn’t sound like any king I know or can think of?  And that’s the same reaction the king’s assembled subjects have in the parable.  When did we see you in those states, they ask.  When could we have possibly offered you help?  You!  Our king!  For them the idea of seeing a king in any of those states, all vulnerable, all wounded and weak, is antithetical to the very idea of sovereignty, of what a ruler should look like.  The king’s response:  you saw me in those states when you saw anyone else in those states.  When you helped them, you helped me. 

And here is what makes our Lord Jesus Christ unlike any sovereign that has ever ruled and will ever rule.  This is what makes the Gospel so radical.  The very principles of nearly every single civilization that has ever existed are turned on their respective heads in the person of this Jesus.  Kings are seated on thrones in palaces, they eat at banquets and are clothed in splendor.  Not this Jesus.  Not this king.  He rules from the gutters.  His clothing is tattered.  He covers himself with a newspaper when he sleeps on the park bench.  He reaches his hand out to us and asks us to help him.  This, brothers & sisters, is our lord Jesus, our king.  And we encounter him every single day.

"Homeless Jesus"

Our king is not some kind of Divine You Up There, distant and unknowable.  Our sovereign is not like Zeus, Poseidon, or any other deity that came before, sitting on a cloud far above us pitiful humans.  Our Lord is not a superhero who swoops in and rescues us from the muck that we get ourselves into.  The power and the majesty of Jesus Christ is that his kingship is about relationship, relationship with the people that he loves so much.  Because it is in such relationships that we see him, that we praise him. 

Do you want to see the face of Jesus?  Go outside and walk around until you come to a “street person.”  Look that person in the eyes.  That’s Jesus.  Our king and sovereign Lord is known to us in the sorts and conditions of every human being, especially those that are so very easy for us to forget and ignore.  To serve them, to respect their dignity, to love them is to bring our king the kind of praise and worship that he deserves.  It is the kind of praise and worship that he commands of us. King of Glory.  King of Peace.  We WILL praise thee.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elizabeth of Hungary, Fran McCoy, & the Goats

“What’s wrong with goats?!”
-5 year old Joe

Today we celebrated the Feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the 13th century princess and philanthropist who has been remembered for her care and nurture of the poor.  She sewed garments to clothe those in need and fished with the common folk in order that they might be fed.  She is a beautiful example of Christian charity and love to the “least of these.”

The Gospel reading for St. Elizabeth today was the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew.  You know the story:  At the end of the age the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the evil just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  It’s an image of the Final Judgment that many in Jesus’ time would have understood fully. 

Which brings me to 5 year old Joe.  In 1989 my little home parish of All Saints, Norton (VA) called its first female rector, The Rev. Fran McCoy.  Fran would be a fixture at that little parish for 19 years, the longest tenured rector in the history of All Saints.  She brought new perspectives, stretched the congregation when it needed stretching, and preached with abandon, while offering the most pastoral presence one can image from a priest.  She was our pastor in every sense of the word.

(L-R:  The Rev. Joe Mitchell, The Rev. Preston Mitchell, & The Rev. Fran MccCoy)

The first sermon Fran preached (or one of the first) revolved around this story, the sheep and the goats.  As we filed through the line at the narthex at the end of the service, 5 year old Joe came up to his new priest and ask straight up, “What’s wrong with goats?”  You see, 5 year old Joe remembered his mom driving home on the backroads and seeing goats on the hillsides and commenting how much she loved goats.  So, he wondered, what was so wrong with the goats?

Fran didn’t have an answer then.  But the years passed, and 5 year old Joe became 28 year old Joe, newly graduated from General Seminary and on the verge of being ordained a deacon at little All Saints.  Fran was there that day, and after the liturgy was over and the bishop blessed the food, Fran—who had retired and moved on from All Saints—spoke up.  “Joe,” she said in that commanding voice, “you once asked me after a sermon what was wrong with goats.”  Everyone laughed.  She continued.  “I can tell you now that your job is to go and take care of the goats.”

Such simple words, yet they were powerful in their simplicity.  The ministry of the deacon is a ministry of service—one that I have learned a great deal about from my two favorite deacons, Paula Ott and Preston Mitchell.  That same spirit of service I carry with me as a priest.  But the service is not just to the goats, not just to those who the world might label as unrighteous.  The service is to all God’s children, all the sheep, goats, and everyone in-between.  And Fran McCoy did that.

As a little kid I wasn’t sure what to make of God or this whole business of church.  I knew I loved going to church on Sundays, knew that I loved to serve at the altar and read the lessons and prayers.  Yet as a teenager I struggled with what I was really meant to do.  Was there a next step after being confirmed?  Should I “feel the Spirit” flowing through me like some of my charismatic Baptist friends talked about?  Was I missing something completely? 

And so I experimented.  I prayed in different ways, even taking the Muslim posture of sajdah when I served as an acolyte during the Eucharistic Prayer.  I would pray with my arms out, intently, almost as if I could force God to come down upon me.  It must have made folks in the pews nervous.  Yet all the while Fran let me do it.  She let me explore my faith, ask questions, and grow.  At 13 when I asked her what I was supposed to do next she suggested I preach a sermon (First Sunday of Christmas).  A few years later she encouraged me to become licensed to serve the chalice and lead Morning Prayer on Sundays when she wasn’t there.  And when I came home from college she often asked me to help her out by serving in any number of roles.  She tended to me.  She cared for me.  She saw something in me that I could not see.  Not yet.  And when the time came for me to ask what I needed to do to go to seminary she said simply, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that since you were 5!”

The call to serve, to tend and care for one another is not limited to those who wear the collar.  It is given to us all in our baptismal covenant—“seek and serve God in all persons…love your neighbor as yourself…respect the dignity of every human being.”  We are called, every one of us, to care for the sheep and the goats alike.  We are called to nurture them, to feed them, to tend to them, to empower them.  We are called to see in them that which they may not be able to see themselves.  We do so by the grace of God, knowing that God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

So thanks be to God for Elizabeth of Hungary, who cared for the least of these.  Thanks be to God for Fran McCoy, who nurtured a curious little boy and brought him to the full stature of the priesthood.  Thanks be to God for all of you who tend and care for both the sheep and the goats. 

P.S.  The answer to 5 year old Joe’s question:  the same thing that’s wrong with the sheep—absolutely nothing!!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Take a Risk For the Kingdom

This sermon was preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington on the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost.  The Gospel reading for the day was Matthew 25: 14-30.

On Saturday, November 15 the Diocese of Lexington held its second annual Ministry & Gifts Fair at Emmanuel Church in Winchester. It was a great celebration of the new and exciting gifts being offered by our diocese from the coalfields up to the river.  But as I headed home yesterday I wondered:  what if the diocese had decided not to have such a sharing of gifts?  What if we had stayed home, keeping our gifts to ourselves?  What if we had said those same 6 tiresome words 'we've always done it this way' and resisted any new ideas being presented?  Blessedly, the diocese did none of these things.   
But have any of you ever heard that phrase, 'Weve always done it this way'?  They say those are the last 6 words of a dying church.  Because those words are symptoms of a toxic, fearful disorder that  holds us back from seeing what new things God is doing in our lives.

The parable that we hear today in Matthews gospel speaks to this.  It was a reality in Jesus day, just as it is in ours.  We often refer to this story as the Parable of the Talents, yet another of Jesus tales that are meant to paint a picture of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Here he says that it is like a master who gives his servants talents to take care of while he goes on a journey.  It should be noted that Jesus is not talking about talents in the way that we know the word--like one's ability to sing or dance--nor is he talking about money.  The Greek word used is talanton, which is a unit of measurement, roughly equivalent to 113 lbs.  Think of it like a scale for balance.  And it only appears here in Matthews gospel, most likely because Matthew was a tax collector and wouldve used such a scale in his own work.  So here the master is giving a very big measurement of something to each of his servants.  Some theologians have suggested that that something was silver.  A talent of silver would be worth roughly $500.  One servant receives 5 talents, another 2, and another 1.  The first two servants both invest their talent, doubling their amount, and they are rewarded.  The third does nothing with what his master gives him.  He doesnt invest it, he takes no risk at all, and while the master does still get his original talent back, he chastises the servant for not being more proactive with what had been given to him.

The third servant was a victim of weve always done it this way.  Scholars like William Barclay have said that the third servant represents the scribes and Pharisees, those in Jesus time who had been given the gift of Gods law but had sought to hoard it, to hold onto it, even when Jesus, the living embodiment of the law, was standing right in front of them.  They, like that servant, refuse to take a risk for fear of losing what they already had.  The chastisement of the servant's attitude in the parable is thus Jesus own chastisement of their fearful attitude, the attitude of weve always done it this way.'  They lack adventure and risk. They squande the gifts given by the master.   

The talents that are in this parable may not be talents in our modern sense, but they are gifts.  And so this parable speaks a very real truth, that God gives each of us gifts.  The amount does not matter-- notice that the master does not speak more highly of the servant who made 10 talents than he does the one who made 4.  So the amount does not matter, what matters is what we do with those gifts.  The first two servants did something with what was given to them.  They didnt know what was going to happen.  It was a risk.  It was scary.  What if they failed?  What if they lost what the master gave them? Yet in spite of the risk, they stepped out in faith, and look what happened.  The third servant, however, takes no such risk. 

There is a sentence in this gospel reading that is difficult to hear, one that I myself wouldve preferred we skip because its so hard to understand.  But we Episcopalians do not skip hard passages, we tackle them head-on! Jesus says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  It sounds really harsh, as though Jesus is going to take away what little we have.  But what Jesus is saying is that the only way to really keep a gift is to put it to good use, to work with it.   If we leave it alone, we will inevitably lose it. It would be as though we never received it in the first place. It'll be an insult to the one who gave it to us in the first place.  Just sitting there, useless, pointless. Jesus is calling each of us to use whatever we have for the good of others and to the honor and glory of God, inside our own churches, yes, but especially out there in the world.  Sometimes its a risk.  Sometimes it means stepping out in faith and doing something that we never considered doing before.  It's scary.  And yes, there certainly are those moments when we find it easier to just say, "No, weve always done it THIS way.  And we're going to continue doing it THIS way!"  It's always easier to give in to our fears of the unknown.  But thats not what Jesus is calling us to do in this parable.  Jesus understood that fear is the corrosive thread that runs through every fiber of our being.  It can cripple us.  Jesus is calling us today to action, to not give in to fear and hoard our gifts--our talents, if you will--but to take the risk in offering them up to the good of others and the glory of God.

So what gift has God given to you, brothers and sisters?  What have you been entrusted with from the master?  What will you do with it? Dont just sit there.  Dont bury it.  Use it.    Take a risk for the kingdom of God.  You might find yourself doing something that you never thought possible.  Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

God is Love...Period!

What if I told you that love really was the most powerful force in the universe?  What if all that stuff about “God is love” was actually real? 

Prior to this past Saturday I had only officiated at one wedding since being ordained.  That wedding was at a country club in town, and while I am happy to say that the couple is still together (meaning that I’m still batting 1.000), there was a part of me that wished I could perform such a ceremony in our cathedral.  This past Saturday I got my wish, and I could not be more blessed.  This couple—pillars in our church community— has been together longer than I have been alive!  And while they were already legally married, they were seeking the blessing of their union by God and Holy Mother Church.  Who would not feel blessed to participate in such a celebration of love?

Michael Miller and Tom Yates are the kind of couple that are just perfect for each other.  Time and again their story has consisted of goodbyes, of the uncertainty that they were actually meant to be together.  Yet God continued to bring them together, over and over and over again.  Eventually the two got the message and have built a life together.  That life has enriched our church community, from Michael’s singing to Tom’s exceptional cooking.  They are here every Sunday, sitting in their familiar pew on the pulpit-side of the nave, and they are one of those couples that everyone knows.  And everyone loves. 

In June of 2011 I was sitting in a comedy club on 23rd street in New York City when the comic stopped his show to announce that marriage equality had been passed in the Empire State.  My girlfriend and I were almost in tears as the audience in the club erupted in applause.  This was something that meant a great deal to both of us.  We had people we both loved dearly who would now be permitted to legally marry.  Our own relationship was transformed by the news.  It was monumental!  And almost instantly the Episcopal Church took action.  One New York bishop allowed his clergy to perform marriages immediately; another said that none of his clergy would be permitted to do so; while still another would not allow them until our General Convention approved a new service.  That approval came in 2012, and in the Diocese of Lexington (KY) we began performing such ceremonies this year.  Michael and Tom are the first such couple to have their union blessed here at Christ Church Cathedral!

There are those who will see this post and think that I was wrong to preside over Michael and Tom’s blessing.  There are those who will think that they, and I, are on the fast track to hell, that what happened on Saturday was nothing short of an abomination in the eyes of God.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe their God does think it’s an abomination.

But that isn’t the God I have come to know.  The God I know is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who, I might add, never said a single word on the issue of homosexuality or marriage equality.  The God Jesus spoke of is a God who loves us unconditionally and invites us to love one another in like fashion.  This God tells us that those who are persecuted are blessed in the kingdom of heaven, that those who have been considered lowly are, in fact, being lifted up.  This God tells us that love is the greatest force in the universe, love of God and one another, and that if we abide by that simple command then we will have accomplished all that God has asked of us.  That is the God that I know.  It is the God that I serve as a priest.

If sin is defined as that which draws us away from God, then love cannot possibly be a sin because love is of God.  Michael and Tom exemplify that love.  So do Liz and Rebecca.  And John and Tait.  Holy Scripture teaches us that we were made for each other, for relationships, because it is in loving relationships that we experience the love of God.  Adam and Eve.  Abraham and Sarah.  Jonathan and David.  Scripture shows us that the blessing of God is present in the love shown between two of God’s children. 

I pray that couples everywhere will see the photo above and know that God blesses all kinds of love.  Michael and Tom have the kind of relationship, the kind of trust and love that I hope one day to have with someone.  It is the kind of relationship that we all deserve to have, the kind that God very clearly blesses.  Thanks be to God for Michael and Tom and the love that they share! 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Politics & the Church: What Do We Do on Election Day??

When I was in seminary I started a Christian Formation class at my field ed church called Episcopal Church 101.  Most parishesincluding the one I now servehave such inquirers classes.  On one particular day I was talking about the roots of the Episcopal Church, namely the ugliness of the Tudor dynasty and the beginnings of Anglicanism.  It is one of the ugliest, bloodiest periods in all of human history, let alone the history of the Church. 

After talking about Henry VIII, Edward VI, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, and all the people who died under eachs regime, a woman got up from the group and started to leave.  I cant take this, she said.  I thought you were going to talk about the history of our church.

I am, was my response. 

Im sorry, she said.  Its just too ugly and mean.  Its too political.

The woman left the room before I could tell her that the ugliness, the meanness, and the politicization are all part of what it means to be the Church, especially a part of the Church that was formed during such political turmoil.  Like it or not, the Church is and always has been political.  But what exactly does that mean?

In some parts of the country, especially where I grew up, pastors are more than happy to take to the pulpit and let their flock know who the proper candidate is, who might be Gods pick for a particular office.  Many times this has little to do with the actual candidate and more to do with his or her political party, especially if that party has close ties to the pastors own denomination. 

Still, there are also the voices that say that, given the Churchs historic role in the bloody history of politics and war, that pastors today should remain as neutral as possible.  Politics, they say, have no place in the pulpit.  They insist upon the separation of church and state to the degree that hardly anything thats actually happening out in the world is shared.  It is not the place of the Church to get involved in politics, they say.

But imagine if we as Christian leaders followed either one of these patterns.  If we were the kinds of leaders who told our parishioners who to vote for then we are no longer preaching the Word of God but the Word of Joe (or whoever).  At that moment we cease being shepherds walking with our flock and become herders trying to force the flock into a pen that is the same shape and size as our own political allegiances.  However, if we are completely neutral then social justice and the true work of the Gospel will never be accomplished.  What if the Episcopal Church had remained silent following the death of Jonathan Daniels?  Odds are we would not have been at the forefront of social change for African Americans (and subsequently women and LGBT folks).

So what are we called to do as pastors when it comes to politics?  What message are we meant to send to our parishioners on this Election Day? 

Firstly, we cannot preach our own politics from the pulpit.  I am a priest in a church that is filled with Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, and everything else.  Yes, my own politics sometimes clash with folks in the pews.  As one of my mentors once put it:  Do you know what separates the liberals from the conservatives in the Episcopal Church? Answer:  the altar rail!  In my congregation is a young woman who works on a campaign for a Democratic candidate while an incumbent Republican congressman sits a few pews over from her!  This is the beauty of the Church, that Gods house is big enough to fit every single person and every single view inside.  Yet it is not my job to speak openly from the pulpit about whether that Democrat is the better candidate or that Republican.  I am called to be a witness, not to sway voters.

That being said, we cannot be completely silent.  To be the Church means to be paying attention to the world.  There is no difference between the two.  We who are called to be leaders in the Church are called to raise awareness among our parishioners and encourage them to make their voices heard, even if their voice is not the same as ours.  When the rights of human beings are being denied, we are called to raise that up because it is a human issue, not a political issue.  When war ravages Gods people we are called to pray for peace, no matter how angry we may be, no matter how impossible peace may seem.  I have sat through too many church services where there is no mention in the sermon or the Prayers of the People of the needs of Gods world outside our own doors.  When human voices cry out for justice and healing, we cannot turn a deaf ear.  In my last year of seminary several students rallied together and marched with Occupy Wall Street.  Decked out in our black cassocks, many of us gave interviews with New York City news outlets and told them that we were not there to take sides, merely to let everyone know that the Church is paying attention.  When Gods people cry out, we must pay attention.

So what is this clerics advice this Election Day?  Its pay attention!  Get out there and vote!  But vote with both your heart and your mind.  Dont vote just because your pastor said that Candidate X is a good Christian.  Vote for issues that are important to you.  Dont be silent, thinking that the Church has no place in politics.  Make your voice as a Christian heard!  Go vote!  

**Father Prime apologizes for the lateness of this post but hopes his brothers and sisters who still have time will get out there and vote!**