Kanye, Bonhoeffer, and the Good Shepherd



A sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B).


**Please note: Kanye West had 7.62 million followers when this sermon was written. He now has 27.9 million. Also, this sermon was prepared prior to the roller coaster ride of Kanye’s twitter over the past week**


Last week, Kanye West tweeted something that I want to use as the jumping off point for my sermon this morning.

I never thought I would say those words from a pulpit (and I bet you never thought you would hear them). But it’s true: I, along with 7.62 million other people, follow Kanye West on Twitter.

Kanye tweeted the following: “Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”

Which naturally brings me to Psalm 23.

Psalm 23 is, perhaps, the most famous of the Psalms – the opening lines of which are known by a wide swath of people from all walks of life, faith, and no faith.

In the movie Titanic, there is an emotional scene toward the end. While the ship is actively sinking – spoiler alert – the Anglican clergyman on board recites the words of this Psalm while the terrified passengers gather around him.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

It is a prayer of comfort uttered by those in mortal danger and those in old age on their dying beds.

This Psalm contains a summation of the comfort of faith, a description of a life handed over to God and spent in trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd.

We are all familiar with this language and idea. We’ve all seen the kitschy paintings of Jesus holding a lamb surrounded by sheep. We know the Good Shepherd.   

The question for this and every sermon, of course, is: so what? What does this have to do with my actual life? What does it mean to follow the Good Shepherd? And why did I start this sermon with a Kanye West tweet?

I think Kanye is onto something. He is pointing to the Truth found in Psalm 23 and all our readings this morning.

He is pointing to the fact that we are not in charge. We are not in control. We try so hard to “set plays” or to “play chess with life”, but it never works. The only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.

I want so badly to be able to plan out my life but I have learned over and over again that the world doesn’t work that way.

A year ago I scheduled a week-long retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. I booked my room at the monastery and bought my train ticket. I picked out the deep religious books I would bring and began to prepare myself for a week of deep transformation, which would begin with a quiet train-ride to New York.

I boarded the train in Lynchburg at 6:00 am and settled in for the day’s long trip. About 45 minutes into the ride I decided to go to the dining car to have breakfast. I patted my pocket to confirm that I had my wallet but – felt nothing.

No reason to panic, my wallet was surely in my backpack.

I checked the pockets of my pack – and nothing. No worries, it was in my suitcase. I pulled down my duffle and rifled through my clothing – and it wasn’t there.

What followed was a seven-hour train ride in which I was simmering with anxiety – what happens when the train conductor realizes I don’t have a wallet or id? How am I going to get something to eat – I skipped breakfast thinking I could eat on the train? How I am going to pay the cab driver to get from the train station to the monastery?  

These questions rushed through my head as the blood rushed to my now hot and red face.

Long story short I made it to the train station near the monastery. When I called the monastery to explain, the monk who answered the phone told me to get a cab and they would pay for it.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”  

When I walked in the door of the monastery, the monk who I’d talked to on the phone smiled and said, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Would you like to set up a time for spiritual direction while you are here?”

I huffed and said, “No thank you. I’ve got my retreat planned.”

And I did. I was still holding onto control. I was a priest after all – I don’t need a guide. I had the book I was going to read and my objectives for the retreat. That night when I started reading my heady theological text I hit a brick wall. I could not connect with it. I couldn’t read more than one or two pages at a time.

So I walked to the monastery library and began browsing the books.

Suddenly, a voice appeared behind me in the door, it was the same monk from before.

“Can I help you find something?”

My defenses were still up, I was still holding tight to my plans, but a crack began to form and the light began to shine through.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”

I was transparent and I said, “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

And that was the truth.

For the next hours, I poured out my heart to this monk I had just met. I surrendered to the fact that my plans didn’t work – that I was helpless – and I found God waiting for me there.

I stopped setting plays or playing chess. I realized, at the end of my rope, that the only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.

That is what a life spent following the Good Shepherd looks like: trustful surrender.

Psalm 23 presents the life of faith as nothing less than a life of full surrender to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, the Psalmist writes.

Our relationship with God is that of a sheep to the shepherd. Without stepping too far into an area in which I have zero expertise – though I did grow up in a house surrounded by farmland — someone else’s farmland, mind you.

I can say this about sheep – they did not choose the shepherd, they do not wake up each morning and weigh their options. They simply follow because when they follow they are fed and led to fresh water and kept safe, for the Shepherd cares for the sheep.

So it is with Christ.

“I am the good shepherd.”, he says,  “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my own and my own know me.”

We are the sheep, Christ is the shepherd, and we are called to follow where he leads which is nothing short of the cross and the death of our very selves and all our ego attachments and our desire to set plays for our lives.  

Now, this may be hard to hear. It may sound like I am saying that we have to give up our autonomy or control, which is tough for us self-determined Westerners.

I have bad news – that is exactly what Kanye and I are saying.

The call to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, is nothing short of a call to give up our control, our plans, and even our very lives to go where he leads.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in Germany in the years before World War II, said, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ.

As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

“The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.”

The life of a disciple, as one following the Good Shepherd, is a life lived in the shadow of death with the illusion of control done away with. It is not a life of ease or comfort. It is like a table “spread before me in the presence of those who trouble me”. The troubles and those who bring them are not gone, but we feast in their presence!

This is a life based on love not fear. This is a life of transparency.

Self-help books and improvement programs all claim the path to “green pastures” and “still waters” but they only present another ladder to climb, another thing to do that never satisfies. They are all rooted in the fear and scarcity.

And all the while, the still, small voice of God “calls us each by name” and fills our cups to overflowing.

The trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd is this instinctual handing over of control every day and in every moment.

For those of us who love to take control of our lives with a white-knuckle grip and be our own shepherd, I ask you Dr. Phil’s famous question, “How is that working out for you?”

The First Letter to John tells us that we should “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts…”

Our hearts condemn us when we think we are in control. The narrative that you aren’t good enough and you can’t do it and you will fail slips into our minds when we take hold of the reigns. Our hearts condemn us when we start hiding and scheming and planning, like I did in during and after my disastrous retreat.

In theological terms, our hearts condemn us when we are bound up in the Law.

Only when we surrender to the grace of God can hearts be reassured. Only when we follow the Good Shepherd can we be lead to the still waters and green pastures of God’s Presence.

There is freedom in admitting powerlessness. There is life in dying to yourself.

“Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.”





“The Sin of White Supremacy” – Sermon for Proper 14, Year A


The intended audience of this text is the congregation of Christ Episcopal Church, Roanoke, VA. It was written to be delivered as a sermon on August 13, 2017. Any non-traditional formatting is due to this intended use. 

Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Good morning.

I had a sermon prepared for this morning before yesterday, but the events in my hometown of Charlottesville led me to reconsider.

I should begin by saying that I condemn the events in Charlottesville. I condemn white supremacy and those who adhere to that racist ideology.

But I can’t stop there.

As a priest, I confess my own failure to condemn the spectre of white supremacy that has haunted this country for three hundred years and is now coming to the forefront of our national conscience again.

A Church that has nothing to say about what happened in Charlottesville this weekend has nothing to say about the Gospel.

A Christianity that has no words for the people of color who for months (and years and centuries) have watched white supremacists grow more confident and bold has nothing to contribute.

If you’ve ever wondered where you would have stood during the Civil Rights Movement, now is the moment to decide.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this weekend a number of neo-nazi and fascist hate groups planned a rally in Charlottesville around the statue of Robert E. Lee. This is not the first time these groups have rallied in Charlottesville.

Hundreds of people, including clergy and the Bishops of the Diocese of Virginia, planned to be in Charlottesville as a counter to the hate proclaimed by the neo-nazi groups.

As the smoke cleared in the hours that followed, we saw the violence that happened. Many people were injured, some arrested, and three people died.

So what does our faith say about this? What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak into this moment?

Unfortunately — sinfully — the Church has been quiet for a long time.

For many mainline denominations, many historically white denominations, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s marked a shift towards a spiritualizing of the Gospel. Increasingly, the message became one of saving souls. The Gospel was about receiving Jesus into your heart and little else. It is worth noting that there is nothing in scripture about receiving Jesus into your heart.

This denial of the incarnation, this rejection of the physical reality of human life is the predecessor of the prosperity gospel.

That anyone can read the words of Jesus and with a straight face claim that God’s desire for people is personal wealth and financial success is beyond me.

But it is not a far jump from those who can go to a neo-nazi rally on Saturday and worship the God of Jesus Christ on Sunday.

It is not a far jump from the American enslavers who sat in church pews while enslaving human beings.

And in case you think I am up on my high horse, the cognitive dissonance that has gripped American Christianity is the same that causes people, like me, to read the words of Jesus and walk past a homeless person without making eye contact.

We have separated the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the lived realities of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. We have made the Gospel a self-help program to make better American citizens.

We have neutered the Good News that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Paul’s words sting when he writes,

“…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

That’s us, folks.

We are the ones who have been sent to proclaim Good News to the poor, release to the prisoners, hope to the orphans, comfort to the widows.

We are the ones.

We must be less concerned with the success of our denomination or the flourishing of our individual churches and more concerned with the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Western world has been presented with a watered-down version of the Good News.

Jesus Christ preached that Truth, with a capital ‘T’, that the peacemakers, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the sick – that the very least of these – are blessed.

To be blessed is to be with those on the wrong side of privilege.

To be blessed is to be at the receiving end of the hate offered by the world, because that is where you find Jesus.

I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus was on the side of the counter-protesters in Charlottesville.

I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus stands with the people who proclaim with a shaking voice, weary from having to say it in 2017, that Black Lives Matter.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, still ring shamefully true:

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

We cannot wait any longer.

The Gospel has something to say about the events in Charlottesville. It is not found in pleasantries or calls for peace. It is not found in blanket condemnations of “violence” or abstract allusions to “reconciliation”.

The Gospel calls us to condemn white supremacy with our words and actions. To put our privilege on the line in the name of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

This is not a pleasant topic or a nice discussion and I am sure there are those who wish I wouldn’t bring this up.

It would have been much easier to keep the sermon I had written before yesterday, but as Christians, we must call things what they are.

Whenever Jesus encountered a demon in the Gospels he first called it by its name. This is uncomfortable and necessary work.

There are those who are at arm’s length, imagining that any discussion of racism or Confederate statues or white supremacy is a discussion of history and theory, but I can assure you – for people of color it is a reality, it is life, and it is unavoidable.

White supremacy is not a problem for people of color to solve.

It is a problem for white people to solve.

We must speak up and stand up.

Those of us with privilege must surrender our comfort for the sake of the Gospel. We must follow Peter out of the boat and into the waves of our modern age, for Jesus is already standing on the waves and saying, “Come.”

If the Episcopal Church has nothing to say about Charlottesville, then what are we doing? Are we worth saving from decline? 

If our churches have nothing to say about injustice, what Good News do we have to offer?

We must keep our eyes on Jesus and our feet in the march towards the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

We must keep marching forward to a day where problems are not solved with torch-lit marches or nuclear bombs.

There is grace in this message.

When the disciples cry out for help in today’s Gospel, Jesus responds immediately.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus is with us when we cry for help.

So we must keep marching forward to a day when the hungry will be filled and their tears wiped away.

This is our calling.

We are the ones sent to proclaim this Good News.

So be it.


Irresponsible Grace


In today’s Gospel we are met with a familiar scene. A crowd has gathered from miles around to hear an unusual, prophetic teacher speak. The people had been hearing for hundreds of years that a time would come in which God would judge the world and divide the righteous from the wicked. The crowd longed for the day when they would be rescued from all oppression and live in peace and happiness. That is why the large crowd flocked to Jesus. They were starting to suspect that the long foretold judgment had begun and the Jesus of Nazareth had something to do with it.

What the people wanted was for the old prophecies to be fulfilled. Like a farmer starting a new agricultural year, they expected that God would sow his field and burn off the chaff but what happened next was NOT what they expected.

To escape the crushing force of the masses, Jesus gets in a boat and goes out into the water. It would have been easy for Jesus to paddle that boat away from the crowd and take the day off, but instead, Jesus turns back to the crowd and prepares to cast his proverbial “net” towards the shore. Jesus proceeds to tell the parable of the sower, about a farmer who throws his seed on various types of ground. Some seed fell on the road and birds ate them before they could grow, other seed fell on rocky ground. It grew quickly but did not have roots deep enough to sustain it. Even more seed fell in with thorns. The thorns grew up and choked the plants before they could develop. The climax of the parable comes with some seed falling on good soil and bringing about a massive harvest.

The story is cryptic. It’s a story of success and failure. Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen.”, which meant, “I know this isn’t obvious; you’re going to have to think about it.”

After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples are confused by what he meant (which seems to be their default). So they walk up to Jesus and, I imagine that Peter would be the one to say, “You know, that was a great story, but we are a little confused.” This is where we get a real miracle, for those who have to preach today at least. Jesus lays it out, in pretty simple terms, and tells the disciples exactly what he meant:

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

I spent a big chunk of my life in Lower Alabama, in a house that was in pretty close proximity to a lot of farm land. That being said, I don’t know much about farming. One thing that I DO know about farming is that when you are laying seed you put the seed exactly where you want the plant to grow. You don’t throw the seed, willy-nilly, wherever you please.

But that’s what the farmers in first century Palestine did. In fields that were only divided by a small line of rocks, the farmers would walk up and down, throwing the seed to every part of the land – rather indiscriminately.

The farmer in the parable throws the seed so that some lands on the road, some on rocks, some in thorns, and only a fourth of the seed lands on good soil. I don’t know about you, but I would say that by today’s standards, this is a bad farmer. Some would even call the farmer irresponsible.

Heather Murray Elkins tells a story in her book, “Holy Stuff of Life”, about asking a long-time farmer about the parable of the sower. She asked the farmer why the sower in the parable threw perfectly good seed onto rocky soil. The farmer replied with a question, “How long do you plan to be farming? “That,” he said, “is the right question to ask.”

You see, a seed encounters a rock. Sprouts roots, creeps into cracks, struggles for room, dies. What happens to the rock? One very small piece is cracked open. It’s the first step in a rock becoming good soil.

If that irresponsible farmer in the parable is the Lord, while the seed is the Word of God, what does that tell us about God? It tells us that God is just as indiscriminate with love and grace. Just as the farmer did not plant based on soil as it is but rather, how it could be, God does not judge based on the soil in which His love is planted. God is looking to the future of the soil. God sees the potential, not the current reality.

In 2011 we love to be in control. With smartphones that keep us updated on everything, all the time. Bluetooth headsets so we can talk on the phone while doing anything. 24 hour news. Meals in a bag so we don’t have to get out of our cars. We love to maximize, streamline, improve, develop. We love to prejudge things based on whether they will or won’t work. The same is true with modern day farmers. Crops in well planned rows. Harvests in a nice, orderly fashion. If it doesn’t rain, we can use sprinklers. If the sun is too hot, we can install covers.

In First Century Palestine, the time in which Jesus is telling this story, they left more to chance – in fact, they took more chances.

In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees were doing the “safe” things according to the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, was taking a lot of big chances in eyes of the Law. Healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, fraternizing with the Samaritan woman. All of these things were extremely irresponsible for a religious teacher in Jesus’s day, so much so that it got him killed. The Law was VERY clear. And Jesus was in violation of the LAW.

Here’s the catch. In the epistle this morning, Paul tells us that Jesus has flipped the script when it comes to the Law. Verse one of the reading tells us that “there is therefore now no condemnation…in Christ Jesus.”

Pardon me?

Did I hear that right?

“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus”?

A Barna poll conducted between 2004 and 2007 showed that 9 out of 10 non-Christians found Christians too “anti-homosexual,” and nearly as many perceived it as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

That doesn’t seem like a Church in which there is “no condemnation”.

There is a man, named Brother Micah, who travels to college campuses on the east coast preaching a message of condemnation and hate to today’s generations. I have had the unfortunate pleasure of watching him “preach” at JMU several times. His favorite mode of preaching is standing on a pedestal, yelling at anyone who walk by, accusing them (rather blindly) of adultery and fornication and going so far as to threaten them with the fire and brimstone of the Lord. His argument comes from the punishments in the Old Testament, the punishments that originate with the Law, but Paul tells us plainly today that God has done what the Law failed to do.

The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it another way. It says that the Law was a Band-Aid over sin, while Christ Jesus offers deep, real healing.

To continue Jesus’s allegory, the Law wanted seed to be planted in good soil and good soil only. In nice, neat rows where it could be monitored and tracked, where the profits could be maximized. Brother Micah, and all the people who preach the fire and brimstone judgments and punishments of God, are holding tight to their notions of what constitutes good soil. For them, the main point of the story is the good soil. The eternal truth that should be taken away from this parable, however, is not that God works only with good soil, but rather that all the seed that God plants is good seed. There is no bad seed in the parable.

Despite what the world looks like today, we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to something BIGGER AND BETTER. The Gospel paints a picture of a God who is indiscriminate with love and grace. A God who put death to death and has given us the gift of grace and eternal life. A God who plants the good seeds of the Word regardless of what the soil looks like. That is what we are called to do, my friends.

In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. It sounds to me like the writers of that Book of Common Prayer didn’t leave much room for bad seed. They were working under the assumption that all we’ve got is good seed.

A few weeks ago in the Good Book Club that meets right before this service, we were discussing the creation story. When we got to the point in the story in which God breathes Spirit into the nose of Adam, the question was asked, “What does this mean for us?” One voice spoke up from the side. Claire Wilson said quietly, “It means we can do what God does.”

How profound!

We can DO what God DOES.

We have the creative capacity to do what our Lord does.

The Gospel reading today shows us what God does.

God loves. God cares. God gives mercy. God plants the good seeds of grace. And God does it all quite irresponsibly and indiscriminately.

So what does that mean for us? It means that as freely as we have been given the gift of love and grace, so too must we give it out. We must be irresponsible with our love. We must not judge the soil, instead we must plant the good seeds of grace and love, and if we do, Jesus says the harvest will be one for the record books.

It is very easy for me to stand up here and say that we all need to be more loving. I am sure you can remember many times when a preacher has told you that from the pulpit. But if our love was TRULY as irresponsible and indiscriminate as Jesus calls it to be, we would live in a changed world.

That is the difference today. Don’t just tuck this sermon in your head. Don’t walk out of this sanctuary having changed nothing. Irresponsible, indiscriminate, and radical love is not easy; it is not a hobby to take up in our free time. It is hard, but this is what Jesus Christ, who rose from the grave and sits at the right hand of God, tells us that we MUST do.

Christianity isn’t about cozy little lessons to make us feel better. It’s about what God’s doing in the world – what he’s already done in Jesus and what he wants to do through us.

God breathed God’s Spirit into us.

We can do what God does. We must do what God does. We must take the grace that has been so irresponsibly given to us and give it out to all we see. Theologian William Sloane Coffin said, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

Remember that message.

We must live as though our smiles, our kindness, our hugs, our very lives are the good seeds of God’s love. Throw it in every direction. Like the farmer who indiscriminately plants seed; like our Lord who indiscriminately plants love and grace; we too must be willing to be indiscriminate with our love and grace. So go forth and love. Love irresponsibly. Love indiscriminately. Give grace to all you meet.

Do what God does.

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears, listen!”