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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

The E-Word – a sermon

​I’m not sure I could have scripted a more amazing first Sunday. A baptism at 8 o’clock, nearly a full house at 10 am and children running here, there, and everywhere made my heart sing. The day was capped off by a wonderful reception and we were sufficiently pounded. Thank you all for a truly delightful day. I’ve thought long and hard about how to make week two just as memorable as week one and I’ve decided not to try. Instead, I’m going to go the opposite direction, taking my cue from this morning’s Gospel lesson, and talking about a part of our common life that is uncomfortable for many. That’s right; today we are going to talk about the dreaded E-word: evangelism.
​Now, before you turn off your ears and pull out the announcement insert from your bulletin, let me assure you, I am not talking about the kind of evangelism you are probably thinking about. There will be no handing out tracts at the entrance to Wal*Mart; no standing at the round-about holding signs that say “repent or perish;” not even knocking on doors and asking people if they have found Jesus. It is only because Episcopalians, like other mainline churches, have by and large failed to do the work of evangelism that these are the images we have of the E-word. We have, for too long, allowed a different kind of Christianity to hold sway. We have abandoned our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. As a result, the picture that people have of the God that we love and worship each Sunday is that of a judgmental, angry God who survives on the guilt and shame of his followers. I don’t know about you, but that is not the God I know.

​There is a change afoot, however. With the election of Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop, there has been a renewed interest in the E-Word. In his biography for the Presiding Bishop search committee, Bishop Curry called for the PB to be a different sort of CEO for the Church; not merely a Chief Executive Officer but the Chief Evangelism Officer. He is working diligently to live up to that title. Throughout 2017, the PB will tour the country preaching at a series of “Episcopal Revivals,” not only to highlight his own ability to share the Good News, but offering practical evangelism resources for Episcopalians who might be scared of the E-Word. He has hired a Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation, who works with various groups throughout the Church to develop practical evangelism training guides. More than 400 Episcopal leaders gathered in Dallas late last year at an Evangelism Matters conference. Even your Rector is a part of the new-found interest in Evangelism. I am honored to serve on the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism. Our task is to create training materials for people who are interested in using their presence on social media to share the love of God.

​As we seek to re-learn what it means to be Episcopal Evangelists, one obvious place to turn would be the scriptures, and today’s Gospel lesson is a gift in that it has within it not one or even two, but three different evangelistic encounters. It all starts with John pointing out Jesus to his disciples. “Here is the lamb of God!” he proclaims. He can do because he has first-hand experience with Jesus. That’s the first lesson we can learn: evangelism is, quite simply, telling the story of our experience with Jesus. This is, at least to me, a lot less scary than feeling like I have to know all the answers before I talk to somebody about God. We don’t need to know how many angels fit on the head of a pin; or whether we prefer Penal Substitionary Atonement over Christus Victor; or even where in the Bible it says that God loves us in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. All we need is an active, ongoing relationship with him. How has following Jesus changed your life? How has attending your church been transformative? When have you seen God at work in the world about you? In order to be an evangelist requires nothing more than being willing to tell your story.    

​The second evangelistic encounter comes from Jesus himself. He can feel Andrew and the unnamed disciple just sort of lurking around and so he invites them to “come and see.” Many of us in the church are used to people sniffing around at our faith. When we live lives worthy of the Gospel, others can become curious, hungry even, to know what it is that makes us different. Why is it that we can have joy and hope in dire circumstances? What causes you to have such compassion for those in need? Who in their right mind gives up a Sunday morning of sleeping in and the Times crossword puzzle to teach three year-olds gospel stories on felt boards? Here, the challenge isn’t so much to be willing to tell our story; they’ve already seen it in our lives, but instead the evangelistic opportunity is to have our eyes open to their interest. They might hover nearby or ask tangential questions; unsure of how to get at the meat of what they are looking for. One of the ways God’s hand is at work is bringing people into our lives who are hungry for God’s love. Pray that your eyes might be open.

​Finally, there is the story of Andrew and Simon Peter. Here we have the classic model of evangelism where one person, often a convert, excited about what God is doing in their life finds someone with whom they already have a relationship and shares the Good News. “We have found the Messiah!” This is the form of evangelism to which every disciple is called. This is the easiest form of evangelism, and often the most effective, as one person who loves and cares for another shares what is important in their life, but again, notice that Andrew’s word to Simon Peter isn’t a long theological discourse. He isn’t engaging his brother in a debate. He is simply sharing the excitement has welled up within him after an evening with Jesus.

​Way back in 1983, I was a chunky three-year old growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad was employed by RR Donnelly and Sons, and was informed that he would be transferred to either Los Angeles, California or a new plant they were building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Thanks be to God, my parents chose Lancaster. While on one of those whirlwind weekends where you fly in, buy a house, and leave, they met Jeanne Ritter. Jeanne was their realtor. She showed them all around town. They settled on 52 Blossom Hill Drive. It was in the best school district; close enough to dad’s work, and had a great sled-riding hill in the back yard. It also happened to be near where Jeanne Ritter lived and went to church. “You’ll have to give my church a try,” she told my parents late that weekend. There was no Bible thumping or fear or shame, just a woman who loved God and her community of faith and was willing to invite someone else to come and see. Because of Jeanne Ritter, my parents sat in the fourth pew from the front on the Gospel side of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church for almost three decades. I was raised in that church, confirmed in that church, worked as a youth minister in that church, and ordained a priest in that church. I am standing before you today as the result of one woman who had a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and wasn’t afraid of the E-Word.

​I know this is only our second week together, and I shouldn’t talk about such sensitive topics so early on, but I think we have a unique opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, it is often converts who are the most effective evangelists. I think it is because they have the most enthusiasm. There is something exciting about a new thing happening, and that is precisely what we have going on here. Studies still suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans would we willing to attend church if a friend or family member invited them. So, why not ask? Invite someone to come see this new and exciting thing we have going on. Invite someone back who maybe hasn’t been here in a while. Be willing to take that step of faith. It doesn’t have to be complicated or scary, evangelism is simply an extension of your joy that invites someone else to come and see. Amen.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.


Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

What evangelism looks like


Evangelism gets a bad wrap in Episcopal circles.  We’ve abdicated our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We’ve allowed others to proclaim a Gospel of fear, guilt, and shame, and done very little to show the world that John 3:16 is about perfect love that casts out fear, guilt, and shame.  In so doing, we have lost at least two generations of potential disciples of Jesus to a form of Christianity that can be more damaging than good.  There is good work beginning to happen.  From the Presiding Bishop’s Revivals to the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, we are beginning to turn the corner.  The E-Word, as Brian McLaren once put it, is no longer a bad word in Episcopal circles.  The time is now to being re-learning what Episcopal Evangelism looks like.

One place to turn is this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which includes no less than three evangelistic encounters.  It begins with John pointing out Jesus to his disciples.  “Here is the lamb of God!” he proclaims, and he can do because he has first hand experience with Jesus.  That’s the first lesson we have to learn: evangelism is telling the story of our experience with Jesus.  How has following Jesus changed your life?  How had attending your church been transformative?  When have you seen God at work in the world about you?  In order to be an evangelist requires nothing more than being willing to tell your story.

The second evangelistic encounter comes from Jesus himself.  He can feel Andrew and the unnamed disciple sniffing around and he invites them to “come and see.”  Those of us in the church are used to people sniffing around.  They are curious, hungry even, to know what it is that makes us different.  Why is it that we can have joy and hope in dire circumstances?  Who in their right mind gives up a Sunday morning of sleeping in and the Times crossword puzzle to teach three year-olds gospel stories on felt boards?  Here, the challenge isn’t so much to be wiling to tell our story, they’ve already seen it in our lives, but instead to have our eyes open to their interest.  They might hover nearby or ask tangential questions; unsure of how to get at the meat of what they are looking for.  One of the ways God’s had is at work is bringing people into our lives who are hungry for God’s love.  Pray that your eyes might be open.

Finally, there is the story of Andrew and Simon Peter.  Here we have the classic model of evangelism where one person, often a convert, excited about what God is doing in the world finds someone with whom they already have a relationship and shares the Good News.  “We have found the Messiah!”   It is the form of evangelism to which every disciple is called.  This is the easiest form of evangelism, and often the most effective, as one person who loves and cares for another shares what is important in their lives.

Sunday’s lesson might be another in a seemingly unending string of stories about JBap, but deep down, it is a delightful lesson on evangelism.  Thanks be to God.

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

In Community, There is Peace – a sermon

My sermon for Epiphany 1A, the Baptism of our Lord.

I remember it like it was yesterday.  April 9, 2009.  Eliza, our first child, was born on the seventh.  It was Maundy Thursday (we have excellent timing, you know.  Our first child was born in Holy Week and now we’ve moved over Christmas), and we were getting ready to take her home.  The day started rather inauspiciously.  I had slept at home, in order to put the finishing touches on the nursery.  On the way to Thomas Hospital, I was stopped at a seatbelt check point.  My insurance card was expired, but the officer was kind enough to let the shaking in fear new father continue on his way.  As evening drew close, the final tests were complete, and I brought the car seat up to strap in the tiny newborn for her first car ride.  We had absolutely no clue what we were doing.  Did her legs go here?  No, that didn’t seem right.  What about this way?  Nope, not that either.  It was in that moment that I realized that children really should come with an instruction manual.  I didn’t know the first thing about raising a child.  I couldn’t even manage to put her in her car seat properly.  I could feel the dark cloud of fear and doom creeping ever closer as one of the nurses helped us figure out where Eliza’s legs were supposed to go, when she looked up from the car seat, handed us a card, and said, “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call.  We are here to help.”  And just like that, I felt at peace.  I realized that there was a whole community of people ready, willing, and most importantly, able, to help us navigate this new world.

I may be reading a bit of myself into this Gospel story, but I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus was feeling the same way as he made his was down from Nazereth to the shores of the Jordan River.  He knew that he was going to be baptized by John – he even knew that it was the right thing to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness,” but I suspect he wasn’t quite prepared for what was going to happen next.  Somewhere along the way, maybe he muttered to his Father in heaven, it’d sure be nice if there was a manual for this Messiah thing.

See, a lot has happened since we last left Jesus.  Two weeks ago was Christmas, if you can believe that.  We heard the great stories that we have all come to know and love.  Luke’s account gives us Mary, Joseph and their donkey, the Inn Keeper, angels, and shepherds.  It makes for delightful pageants, and I’m sure that glad tidings of great joy rang out here at Christ Church just as they did at Saint Paul’s in Foley.  In John’s great prologue, we heard flowing and cosmic language about the Word who was with God and was God and came to dwell among us.  It is a story of God’s unending love of creation that God would send his only son to be born for us and live among us as the light of the world.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Name.  The baby, then eight days old, was circumcised and formally given the name that the angel had given to both Mary and Joseph.  Jesus, God saves, was nothing more than a newborn in that moment, and yet today, only a week later, we find him as a fully grown man of 30.  We’ve skipped over the Wise Men who followed the star in order to pay homage to Jesus and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We missed the flight to Egypt when Jesus, only a toddler, was taken by his family to exile in Egypt in order save his life from the slaughter of the innocents by Herod.  Much to my chagrin, we didn’t even hear from snarky tween Jesus who at age 12 stayed behind in the Temple after his parents had left to return to Nazareth after the Passover Festival.  Not that there is much of it in the Gospels, but we have skipped over all of Jesus’ character development.

Had we heard those stories, we might realize that from very early on, Jesus knew that he was different.  He was hungry for instruction in the faith.  He was eager to pray.  He was content to sit in silence.  For years upon years, he waited to find the fulfillment of his ministry.  For decades, he worked in the carpenter shop, waiting for a word that would call him to service.  Finally, that day had arrived, and as he made his way to the place where his cousin, John, had been baptizing anyone and everyone for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus readied himself for the task at hand.  What would this Messiah thing be like?  How would he know how to act?  What to do?  What to say?  Even as he approached John, there was this moment of awkwardness and trepidation.  John, clearly uncomfortable with what was about to happen, balked at the idea.  “Who am I to baptize you?” He asked.  “Let it be so for now,” Jesus replied, barely sure of what he was saying.  Even as he went under the water, I’m not sure Jesus really knew what he was doing.  There was no sin that needed to be washed away; no repentance that needed to happen; and yet, there was something that needed to happen.  The time had come; it was his moment to make a definitive commitment to the life for which his Father had sent him.  And so, down he went, into the muddy waters of the Jordan River.

As the waters broke open above him, so too did the heavens.  The water, still trickling past his eyes, obscured, if only for a moment, the vision of the Spirit descending upon him with power and might.  The whooshing of the river was still ringing in his ears as Jesus heard the voice of his Father saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  And just like that, Jesus was at peace once again.  There was a community ready, willing, and most importantly, able to help him navigate the ministry that was ahead of him.  Let’s not sugar coat this, however; the very next thing that happens is the Spirit, one of those helping hands, will fling Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and soul searching.  Three years from now, as Jesus prays in a Garden just outside of Jerusalem, his Father won’t take the cup from him.  But together, they will accomplish the work of salvation, the plan that had been in place from the very beginning.  Through the person of Jesus: his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will bring about the salvation of the world.

Maybe you can relate to all this talk of dis-ease.  Today is a day not unlike April 9, 2009 or that fateful morning when Jesus made his way to the banks of the Jordan River.  Something new is happening here.  There is no instruction manual for the adventure we are about to embark upon.  It is quite possible that none of us have any idea what we’ve signed up for, but there is good news: we are going to walk this path together.  And just like that, there is peace.  Together, as the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, we who are ready, willing, and to varying degrees able, will support one another in the ministry that lay ahead.  Together with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we will take our place in God’s mission to bring into right relationship every man, woman, and child with one another and with the God who created them, loves them, and wants only the best for them.  Together, we will work to bring the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

On April 9, 2009, the symbol of togetherness was a business card and a nursing staff willing to answer our questions.  In the middle of the Jordan River, it was the Spirit descending as a dove and the voice of the Father claiming his only Son.  Today, the symbol of our togetherness is the renewal of our baptismal vows; promises made and renewed every time a new member joins the ranks of God’s family.  In these promises we make a commitment to God and to one another to join in the work at hand.  So, without further ado, let us stand together and renew the promises of our ministry together.

More Names

I may have gone a bit overboard on the influence of names in my final sermon at Saint Paul’s.  From a homiletical perspective, I took the hook too far.  From a liturgical year perspective, I undermined my Rector’s ability to preach on names on the Feast of the Holy Name this Sunday.  The Feat of the Holy Name is one of only a small handful of feast days that takes precedence over a Sunday, which means that when Christmas falls on Sunday, there will be no other Sundays in the season.  Holy Name supersedes Christmas 1 and Epiphany occurs before we can have Christmas 2.  So, what is TKT left to preach on this strange Sunday?

Well, names, of course.  I’m sure he will take some time on the power that lives in the very name of Jesus (God saves), but knowing TKT and his love of the story of Moses, I suspect that he will also focus his attention on the Aaronic blessing that Moses speaks over Aaron and the people of Israel.

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

In the Israelite tradition, the name of God is so holy that it is not to be spoken.  This name is the one given by God to Moses at the burning bush.  Rendered in Latin Script as YHWH, it means something like “I am.”  God is ever present. In the midst of bondage in Egypt, God is.  In the midst of the joyful expectation of the Promised Land, God is.  In the midst of famine, peril, and sword; birth, marriage, and triumph, God is.

While that holy name is not to be uttered, forms of us are all over the Hebrew language, including the other Holy Name we remember on the eighth day of Christmas.  As I noted two weeks ago,  the Hebrew form of Jesus is Yehoshua, and it is a combination of YHWH and shua, which means a cry for help.  In the holy name of Jesus, we are reminded that God saves; that God is our very present help in trouble.  Jesus is the Aaronic blessing of God personified.  He is the face of God that shines upon us.  The very image of God that gives us peace.  Within his name is the very name of God – I am – God is.