Author: Steve Pankey
If you’ve hung around this blog for any length of time, you’re bound to have read these words, “the life of a prophet isn’t easy.” The job of a a prophet is to act as the mouthpiece of God. Sometimes, prophets get to share hopeful news. Take the lesson from Isaiah 11 as an example:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
Words of comfort and hope didn’t come easily to the prophets of old, however. Instead, the regular duty of the prophet was to warn people to “flee from the wrath to come.” Usually, prophets found their way to the power centers to warn the rulers and their people that they had failed to live up to expectations, and that God was angry and planning some sort of divine punishment.
That’s the world that JBap finds himself living in: a world where politics and religion had become awful bedfellows; where the powers-that-be made sure the have-nots stayed in subjugation; where worship of the LORD had been turned into a money making operation. A world not that unlike our own, come to think of it.
JBap’s job was different than the other prophets, however, because JBap got to proclaim the coming of the Savior. Sure, he had his moments of fire and brimstone – “you brood of vipers!” – but, John’s job was to bring people to the place where they were ready for a change. ”Repent!” John proclaimed, “Repent! For the Lord is about to do something spectacular and you’ve got to be ready to see it.”
John’s job, in the end, was to make sure the people were ready to see Jesus for who he really was. His task was to open the eyes of the spiritually blind so that could see Jesus not merely as a Rabbi or a miracle worker or a revolutionary, but as the Son of God, as the Lord, as the Messiah. Which, when you think about it, is probably a much harder job than the other prophets. When the Babylonians are trampling everyone around you, the prophet saying “we’re next” is pretty easy to believe, but when the prophet is proclaiming a savior for the nations, well, that takes a little extra effort.
John’s job was not an enviable one, but thanks be to God, he was faithful to the task at hand.
I mentioned on Monday that repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven were both items of good news, and I suspect many of the regular readers of this blog agree with me. However, I’m not stupid. I’m not so “head in the clouds I’m not earthly good” minded to think that the vast majority of the world has been so abused by religious zealots that anything remotely resembling a call to repentance is cause for immediate Facebook unfriendship, but I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t done the same damage to the image of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are most certainly bounded by our inability to comprehend the spiritual realms, but we’ve worked so hard to make heaven sound like this
that we’ve totally missed the point of the Kingdom. See, it isn’t about streets paved with gold, flowing with milk and honey, with a mansion complete with halo and harp for every believer, where we spend our days singing praises to God so as to keep us from dancing, drinking, or having sex.
No, the Kingdom of God is about something so much better than that. In the 25th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet attempts to paint a picture of hope for a people in bitter despair.
Isaiah 25:6-8 6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
In this vision of the Kingdom there is
- plenty of food for everyone
- plenty of dang good food for everyone
- plenty of food for everyone
- lots of wine
- lots of the finest of wines
- lots of wine
- a full experience of the unimaginable love of God
- a place where there is no fear of death
- a place where relationships are perfect
- a place where there is no guilt,
- no disgrace,
- no mistrust,
- no anger
- no tears
- no anger
- no mistrust,
- no disgrace,
That, to me, sounds like good news. A heck of a lot better news than gold streets and Gregorian chant. Why? Because that Kingdom can happen today. As disciples of Christ, we can work to create a world where there is plenty of food and drink for everyone, where people are loved and respected as children of God: no matter what; where death isn’t feared because of the certain hope of the resurrection, where relationships are built on agape (self-giving love) rather than self-seeking, where we work to allay guilt, disgrace, mistrust, and anger.
With God’s help, that kind of world is available to us today. That’s good news.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”
The message of John the Baptist really is good news. Of course, there are millions of Christians, like the owner of the bus pictured above, who wouldn’t know good news if it his them in the face, but the fact of the matter is that repentance and the Kingdom are both really good things. I’ll deal more with the Kingdom of Heaven in the days to come, but for today, I’d like to spend a minute on repentance.
As most of you know, the Greek word for repentance is metanoia literally, to change one’s mind. Contrary to popular opinion, repentance isn’t about feeling guilty about what you’ve done. It isn’t about saying you’re sorry. It is about choosing the Kingdom of God over and above the Kingdom of me. Life is so much better when I’m living for someone other than myself.
I try to repent every morning. I know that my first instinct is to live for me and my base needs everyday. Thankfully, I have a wife and two great kids who remind me that life isn’t about me. By God’s grace, I have a great vocation that forces me to focus less on myself and more on me. Thanks be to God, I have a role model in Jesus who lived the way of the Kingdom, lived self-giving love, lived a life of self-sacrifice. I try to repent every morning. It doesn’t always work, but I try. Thankfully, the one who came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire is really, really patient.
For the nerds out there, this Robertson Word Picture is really helpful.
Mat 3:2 – Repent (metanoeite). Broadus used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament. The trouble is that the English word “repent” means “to be sorry again” from the Latin repoenitet (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change (think afterwards) their mental attitudes (metanoeite) and conduct. The Vulgate has it “do penance” and Wycliff has followed that. The Old Syriac has it better: “Turn ye.” The French (Geneva) has it “Amendez vous.” This is John’s great word (Bruce) and it has been hopelessly mistranslated. The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (metamelomai) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Mt 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: “Turn ye” (Joe 2:12; Isa. 55:7; Eze 33:11,15).
This will be a short week on Draughting Theology, but I would be remiss to wish my readers a Happy Thanksgiving and to offer my best wishes to preachers as they dust off their old commentaries on Matthew on a short preaching week prior to Advent 1. I’m guessing many congregations will hear sermons on the season of Advent instead of in-depth preaching on that awkward moment when Jesus seems to give credence to rapture theology.
While I’d love to spend the week dealing with Jesus’ apocalyptic vision in Matthew, it just isn’t going to happen, and so, in what will surely be my only post this week, I will instead offer you my prayer this Thanksgiving. It is a prayer that is as much for me as it is for you. It is a prayer that has a long and rich history. It is a prayer that should be recited every morning. It is a prayer that is too often forgotten.
Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, help us to rejoice in the Lord always, that our gentleness might be known to everyone. Keep us comforted in the knowledge that you are near, that we need not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving we can let your requests be made known to you. May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, help us to think about these things. Amen. (Adapted from Philippians 4.4-9)
In light of yesterday’s post on the ways in which salvation looks different than I often hope it will, I read with interest a commentary piece on the Religion News Service (RNS) by an Episcopal Priest named Tom Ehrich, entitled “Sunday Mornings are Broken.” In the op/ed, Father Tom uses the shifting trend away from PCs and toward tablets and smartphones as a way to argue that Sunday morning is no longer the most important part of Church life and as such, we should take resources away from Sunday worship and invest them in weekday activities like small groups, mission activities and “lively online offerings.” He stops short of suggesting that Sunday morning should go away entirely, a proposition I once heard Bart Campolo, Tony’s son, suggest during a rain delay at the Indy 500, but he stops just short.
I appreciate where Father Tom is coming from, and I agree with him, wholeheartedly, that if all a parish is offering is Sunday morning worship, then the writing is on the wall, but I think his comparison with the changing personal computer industry is flawed. In the same way that an iPad does some things much better and some things much worse than a traditional computer, I think that Monday through Saturday Christianity does some things much better: community building, developing an outward focus, encouraging Christian education, and establishing whole life stewardship; and some things much worse: creating praying and worshiping communities of faith and being a part of something larger than one’s self, being two prime examples. To have one without the other is to be detrimental to our shared mission as disciples of Jesus: a mission we share with one another and a mission we share with God.
The Collect for Christ the King articulates quite beautifully the mission of God in our midst, “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords…” Conveniently, the mission of the Church, as spelled out in the Catechism lines up quite easily with the mission of God, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855). What I find most telling as we debate the merits of Sunday versus Monday through Saturday Christianity are the two follow-up questions:
How does the Church pursue its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worship, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members. (BCP, 855)
I agree with Father Tom, in that for too long, the Church has focused only on prayer, worship, and proclaiming the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that Sunday morning is broken. Instead, what broke was our ability to be Christians the rest of the week. We forgot the stuff after the and, “promoting justice, peace, and love,” all while fostering a “Father knows best” attitude toward ministry when the Church’s mission – God’s mission – should be lived out in the work of every Christian.
It isn’t about giving up on Sunday morning, but rather, it is about embracing one of the core values of a Christian community like Thad’s in the Diocese of LA, “We are Monday-Saturday followers of Jesus, who worship on Sunday.” Or, as one of our young adults said at a recent community conversation dinner, “I want a church that feeds me on Sunday, but are my family and friends all week long.”
That’s what its all about. That’s how our mission meets the mission of God.
It is a well-worn tale. Jesus, being crucified between two criminals, is challenged by just about everyone to prove himself as King. In particular, we seem to tend to focus on the criminal who derides Jesus by asking, “Aren’t you the Messiah?” He begs him, “Save yourself… and us!” I guess we focus on this criminal because he is the foil for the other, the one who will be with Jesus “in Paradise, today.” I suppose we expect the soldiers to mock Jesus, after all, it is their job to make this traitor to Rome seem as unspectacular as possible. As if his hanging on a cross isn’t enough, they want to make sure everyone who looks on knows that Rome is in control and Jesus, or any other revolutionary for that matter, are foolish morons. I also think that we probably assume that the crowd would be anti-Jesus, after all, they were the one’s that got whipped into a frenzy by the Chief Priests and cried out “crucify him!” Maybe the criminal at Jesus’ side is the most surprising naysayer, and therefore gets our attention.
What got my attention this morning was the demand the criminal makes, “Save yourself… and us!” It is a great ironic twist in the midst of an already dramatic story told by Luke. The birth of Jesus is foretold by the angel Gabriel, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most Highs, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk 1.31-33) His birth is announced by a choir of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Lk 2.14) He is baptized in the River Jordan and “filled with the Holy Spirit… was led… in the wilderness, where for forty days he wast tempted by the devil.” (Lk. 4.1-2) He was rejected in his hometown (4.14-30) and began a ministry of healing, preaching, teaching, and forgiving that ultimately brought him to Jerusalem on what would come to be called Palm Sunday (19.28-40) where he wept (19.41-44), ran out the money-changers (19.45-48), and found himself arrested (22.47f), found guilty (23.13f), and taken to the place called “The Skull” (23.33).
“Save yourself… and us!” Ironic because a) Jesus has been saving us since before his birth and b) the cross is the place where that saving work is made permanent. His death, as we say, destroyed death. His death is his most obvious salvific act of love. Way back at the Temptation, the devil hoped that Jesus would save himself so that he could no longer save us, but he refused. It is in his self-sacrifice, the very fact that he didn’t save himself, that we are saved.
Funny, that’s not what the criminal, nor I, for that matter, really expect salvation to look like.
One of the peculiarities of the Church Year is how it ends. We spend most of the summer and fall walking our way to Jerusalem. The last few weeks, as the rest of the world does this:
We find ourselves here:
Ultimately, our great New Years Eve festival, Christ the King Day (added to our Calendar in 1970!) brings us to the foot of the cross.
It is peculiar, to be sure, but I also find it very helpful that in Year C we make it all the way to the cross. It is, I think, a fitting way to close the book on a three year lectionary cycle because of just how counter-cultural it is. While the world is neck deep in the joy of the secular feast of Christmas, we are reminded that Jesus’ Incarnation, his ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension are each a part of the much larger story of God’s Kingdom of Love being built on earth. We sit at the feet of Jesus, the King of the Jews, while he hangs in agony on a Roman torture device, but we know the fuller picture.
We know that life always defeats death. We know that love always conquers evil. We know that hope always overrides despair.
You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.
Y’know, it really is a miracle that we are here at all this morning. Of course there is the miracle and gift of life itself, which is a topic very much worth pondering, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking more about how it is that the Church exists at all, let alone four-hundred-ninety-eight members at Saint Paul’s or eighteen-thousand members of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast or one-point-nine-million members of The Episcopal Church or two-point-two billion Christians in forty-one-thousand different denominations around the globe. Christianity was founded by a rag-tag group of disciples whose leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was betrayed by one of his closest associates, arrested by his own people, and killed as a traitor by one of the largest empires in world history. Thirty years after Jesus died, there were maybe four thousand Christians in all of the Roman Empire when in the year 64 a fire broke out in Rome that burned for six days. Rumors swirled that the Emperor, Nero, had ordered the fire be set and in an attempt to deflect attention from himself, Nero blamed Christians for setting it. Quickly, a persecution swept through Rome that many scholars believe is how both Peter and Paul ended up martyred. Christians were an easy target because they were a very small sect and because they were viewed by proper Romans as having a “hatred of humankind,” their leader was killed as a traitor to Rome, and their chief activity of worship was believed to be ritual cannibalism: eating the body and blood of their dead leader. It really is a miracle that the Church survived at all. Our presence here this morning is the result of more than two-thousand years of Christians who have endured amidst all sorts of hardship.
Our ability to endure goes back even further than the time of Jesus. This morning’s Old Testament Lesson and the Canticle both come from the book of the prophet Isaiah, a book that tells the story of more than two hundred years of endurance. The First Song of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, who lived some seven-hundred years before Jesus and was a prophet to several Kings of Judah in a time that saw the Assyrian Empire conquering Israel and breathing down Judah’s neck. Things did not look good for God’s Chosen People while Isaiah was alive, and yet the prophet was able to speak words of comfort and strength to encourage the people to endure their hardship. “On that day…” Isaiah wrote again and again, imagining a better world, “On that day when God’s mighty hand brings vengeance upon our enemies and salvation to our land, we will draw water with rejoicing, we will ring out our joy, and we will live in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.”
Some two-hundred years later, when most scholars believe a different prophet wrote the final ten chapters of Isaiah, the people of Judah have been through the Babylonian Exile, their Temple has been laid waste, and they have returned to find a very unwelcoming land. As they begin the arduous work of building the Second Temple as a testimony to God’s presence even in the midst of their hardship, the prophet declares that their endurance will be rewarded: that the shame and sorrow of the recent past will be replaced with eternal joy and prosperity. Isaiah’s great vision of the new heavens and the new earth are a reminder of the hope of Judah that in then end the reward for their endurance will be greater than anything they could even imagine. It is a utopian picture of God’s holy mountain, where he will dwell alongside his people, where infant mortality rates will drop from 3 in 4 to 0, where someone living long enough for Willard Scott to call their name on the Today Show would be considered a youth, where all human work is successful, where wolves stop eating lambs, and where even the lions are domesticated. All the people have to do to inherit this paradise is endure.
And endure they do. The temple is ultimately built, and then expanded and impeccably adorned at the command of Herod, so that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem the outer court can hold four-hundred-thousand people. It is no wonder that tourists all around Jesus are looking up at its great edifice and saying, “Wow! Would you look at that Temple! It is breath-taking, just beautiful!” Jesus knows, however, that things aren’t quite what they seem. The Temple is big and it is beautiful, but it is only that way because Herod, the Roman figurehead, self-proclaimed “King of the Jews,” had funneled massive amounts of money into it. Herod’s Temple, as it came to be known, was paid for by massive taxes on the local Jews and was as much a sign of the power and presence of God in Jerusalem as it was the power and prestige of Herod himself.
Jesus knows that a time of real endurance is coming. He is only a few days away from his crucifixion, and he is keenly aware that the road ahead for his followers is not going to be an easy one. As they look over the Temple Hill, Jesus encourages his disciples in a most peculiar way, through an apocalyptic vision. “The day will come,” do you hear the echo of Isaiah here? “The day will come when this whole Temple will be destroyed, wars will be unleashed, natural disasters will pile one upon the other, and the skies will be filled with ominous signs. You will be hated, arrested, persecuted, and some even killed. Like me, you’ll be turned over to the authorities by your closest family and friends, but these trials will be an opportunity for you, a chance to testify to the truth. Don’t worry. I’ll be with you. I’ll give you the words to say. I’ll give you the wisdom you need. All you have to do is endure and you will gain your souls.”
Like in Isaiah 12 and Isaiah 65, Jesus encourages his disciples to endure the forthcoming hardship for the sake of unrivaled future blessings. He invites them to endure, not by their own might, or as the result of their own intestinal fortitude, but by having faith in the Father. That seems to be the key to unlocking endurance. It is not me who steels myself against the coming trial, but it is through faith in the promises of God that we gain our strength.
Given my own tendency to want to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, I think of it as miraculous that the Church exists at all, but when you think about the strength of Judah, the steadfast faith of Jerusalem, and the endurance of the early Church, it is less a miracle and more a testament to God’s faithfulness. Over and over again, God has been willing to give his people faith as a gift of his grace. We endure because Jesus Christ endured the cross and the grave to make us right with God. We endure because of the gift of faith that gives us hope and saves our souls. We endure because God wants us to. We endure so that we can testify to his faithfulness in times of persecution and in times of prosperity. We endure so that we can join with those who have endured from every generation in proclaiming, “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid… Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” Amen.
 2012 Parochial Report
 The Blue Book, 2012
 Pew Research, 2011
 Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2011
 OT1 Class Notes
 Roberts, J.J.M., Introduction to Isaiah in the HarperCollins Study Bible, (1993), p. 1013.
 Corrine Carvalho, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1792
 Richard Swanson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1853
“By your endurance you will save your souls.”
So ends the Gospel lesson appointed for Proper 28, Year C. It is a curious turn of phrase from Jesus who just seconds earlier told his disciples not to worry about wars and rumors of wars; not to stress over what to say when they are put on trial for their faith; to trust in him for the words and, by inference, the strength, when the time comes. I’m puzzled that Jesus would then immediately turn around and say something that sounds so “self-helpy” – so 21st century American.
I went digging through BibleWorks on that word, “endurance.” It appears all throughout the New Testament, and is a key part of two rather famous passages.
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
James 1:2-4 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
In all three instances, the act of enduring trials brings forth blessings. In Luke it is the salvation of one’s soul. In Romans it is the hope that does not disappoint us. In James it is wholeness. These are all things that humans have been seeking after since the beginning. And as I read through the passages, it became clear that endurance is not about something that I accomplish. I’m not the one who steels myself in times of trial, but rather it is my finding peace in God that allows me to endure. It is my faith that carries me through the tough times. It is my faith that keeps me from believing my own PR in the good times. It is faith, which is a gift of grace, that makes it possible for me to have endurance.
It is faith that makes me whole, gives me hope, and saves my soul.
My homily from our noon service today can be heard on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.” We’ve all heard these words before; many of us more often than we’d like. This variation on our lesson from Job makes up the second paragraph of the Processional Anthem in the burial office. They are meant to be words of comfort, words of hope, words of strength. They are to be read as a certainty: I know that my Redeemer lives; he will raise me up; I shall see God; my friend and not a stranger.
When I was in seminary, I was appalled by many things, not least of which was the strong sense of denominational superiority that pervaded all of seminary life. Everybody was so sure that Episcopalians were right, meet and right as the old saying goes, especially in our liturgy. They looked down upon those faithful professors, ordained in a different tradition, when they attempted to offer their style of worship in the chapel. Being something of a denominational journeyman: baptized Roman Catholic, confirmed Episcopalian, born again in a non-denominational youth group, and married in the Presbyterian Church; I simply couldn’t buy that Episcopalians had it all right. Except for one place, a place that became supremely important in the midst of my seminary experience: the burial office. If we were to take one service from each denomination to make a pan-Christian Church, I’m convinced that the best thing The Episcopal Church has to offer is our funeral liturgy, especially that opening anthem, cobbled together from John, Job, and Timothy by Archbishop Cranmer in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.
It is that portion from Job that I think speaks so clearly to the hope of the resurrection. Job does not speak these words in isolation; he doesn’t just utter them out of thin air. Instead, they come at the climax of his pain. In the midst of his back and forth with friends, Job realizes the depth of his sadness:
Job 19:10-19 God breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree. 11 He has kindled his wrath against me, and counts me as his adversary. 12 His troops come on together; they have thrown up siegeworks against me, and encamp around my tent. 13 “He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. 14 My relatives and my close friends have failed me; 15 the guests in my house have forgotten me; my serving girls count me as a stranger; I have become an alien in their eyes. 16 I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him. 17 My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. 18 Even young children despise me; when I rise, they talk against me. 19 All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me.
And he realized that his friends, like God, have been the source of his torment. Job is at the bottom of the pit: feeling totally alone and rejected by family, friends, and even God, when he says, “I know that my redeemer lives…” See, this passage assumes that there will be tough times, but even in the pit of despair, hope remains. God is present, even in the midst of sadness, hardship, and death. As the burial office says later, “even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” These are ancient words: words of comfort and hope; words that span across history because of their truth. There will be hardship, but God will be there. Amen.