Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Advertisements

He did not live in a house

It can be easy to dismiss the stories of the Bible because of how far removed from it all we seem to be.  Events that happened 2, 3, even 5,000 years-ago can feel like they haven nothing to say to us now.  We like to think that we live in a society that is more civilized.  Technology is certainly more advanced.  Science has taught us much about what was thought to be supernatural.  Since Darwin first published On the Origin of Speciesthe church has struggled to keep the Bible relevant and active despite places where the story of scripture doesn’t seem to match the story being revealed to us.  Some, like Jesus Seminar Scholars have tried to throw the Biblical narrative all away as myth.  Others, like the car I saw on Sunday with a bumper sticker that says “Evolution is a Lie” have made the choice to throw out science.  Neither have been very successful because theology and science aren’t zero sum games.

healing_of_the_demon-possessed

The reality is that we live in a world where God is constantly being newly revealed to us both in scripture and in science.  God’s story continues to intersect with our story even more than a thousand years after the canon was finally established.  This came to light to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is a story about which we have changed our understanding due to advancements in psychology, but we can also very much relate to the situation.

A man who is clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness has found himself outside of the bounds of normal society.  Likely after years of his family trying to support him, finally the man’s struggles had burned every bridge and, as Luke tells it, “he did not live in a house.”  As I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about the root causes of homelessness, I’ve heard a version of this story quite often.  Mental illness, left untreated for a variety of reasons, eventually self-medicated with street drugs, is the story of some, not all, likely not even most, of those who have found themselves experiencing homelessness here in Bowling Green.

While we don’t have the ability to just cast that which possesses folks into a herd of swine, we can still learn a lot from how Jesus interacts with the man he met on the lakeshore.  First and foremost, Jesus saw the man and engaged him.  He didn’t cross tot he other side.  He didn’t put up a “no panhandling” sign filled with dubious “facts.”  He didn’t shake his head and say “somebody should do something about that.”  No, Jesus met the man, in all of his difficulty, face-to-face.  He heard his story.  He had compassion.  And then, because there is no compassion without action, Jesus did something about the man’s situtation. This is where the rubber meets the road for those of us who follow Jesus.  We are called to action.  We are called to seek ways in which all of humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  It isn’t easy work.  In fact, as in this story, it can be downright messy, but it is the work to which we all have been called.

Confused language

It’s been almost 15 years since I started posting the text of my sermons on a blog. It’s been more than 5 years since the congregations I’ve served have had the ability to record audio. We’re still ironing out the kinks in video recording at Christ Church. The intent of each has been to allow those not able to attend Sunday services to be a part of it. In my tradition, at least theologically, the sermon isn’t the pinnacle of the service, but in survey after survey, we hear that what keeps people coming back to church and what they look for in their clergy is good preaching. So, since we can’t have the Eucharist celebrated in every living room every Sunday, we share what we can.

With each successive technological advancement, we’ve gotten closer to sharing the fullness of the sermon experience. With just the text, we lose all kinds of cues that the person in the pew can use to interpret what’s being said. [This is especially true of blog posts which raise hackles like yesterday’s did. Many of y’all were not on board with any kind of critical reflection on the practice of wearing red on Pentecost.] With audio recording, one can at least hear some of the nuances of delivery, but so much of communication is non-verbal a lot is still missing. With video, we can see those non-verbal cues, but even so, we miss the energy in the room and the shared experience of the homiletical event. Even those who are sitting in the nave in a Sunday morning can interpret the sermon in vastly different ways.

bad-mouth_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8

The confused nature of communication that we experience on a daily basis has its origin story in the Tower of Babel, which is an optional lesson for the Day of Pentecost.  One need not believe that this myth is the actual story of how various languages came to be to understand the truth that the confused nature of language has been a challenge to the human condition since we first began to communicate in something other than tonal grunts.  In fact, one could argue that the source of much of the interpersonal strife in our world, outside of larger fights over power, money, and privilege, is based in our inability to communicate clearly with one another.

Part of the task as Christians who aren’t readily gifted with the Spirit-fueled ability to speak clearly in any language is to work to speak and hear one another with clarity so as to avoid, as best we can, those moments of misunderstanding that lead to hard feelings, anger, broken relationships, and sin.  As a writer, a preacher, a husband, and a father, I can tell you, this work is a full-time job.  So, dear reader, in a variation on the words attributed to Saint Francis, let us seek to understand and to be understood, for such is the way of love, dignity, and respect.

Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

keep-calm-wear-red

This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

5_ways_church_unity_creates_powerful_influence.jpg__640x360_q85_crop_subsampling-2

Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

How to choose?

Most weeks, the lesson of choice for preaching is fairly obvious.  It is my preference to preach from the Gospel on most occasions, but by the time we reach the 7th Sunday of Easter, it can become challenging to tie the lesson in with the season.  We’ve long since run out of resurrection encounters, especially when they hold fast to this “1 Synoptic + John” mindset in the three-year lectionary cycle.  We’ve been back in Holy Week, at the Last Supper, no less, for three weeks now.  It is post-Ascension in the calendar, so we could tell one of those stories, but I guess that’s not as interesting to the RCL Cartel as a run-on sentence from John 17.

As I look at the other options for this Sunday, there’s the really interesting story from Acts (a staple in Eastertide) of Paul’s temper-tantrum putting him in jail and God providing a way out.  From Revelation, we have a smattering on selected verses from the book’s final chapter.  If one had been doing a series on John’s great vision, I suppose that could be a helpful bookend.  On a short preaching week, with an Ascension Day Eucharist and wedding sermon staring at me as well, I find myself really struggling with which lesson to dive into for preaching this week.

logo

In one of my preaching courses, Dr. Brosend taught us to ask the homiletical question, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”  When the preaching process is easy.  When the Gospel lesson is narrative.  When the application is obvious.  This question is fairly easy to answer, but on weeks like Easter 7C, when the lectionary seems to be conspiring against the preacher, the process takes a lot more time.  I can’t just pull resources from my trusted sites on textweek.com and begin the percolating process.  Instead, this week, amidst of the busyness of the many other demands that come with a stipend and full-time employment in the priestly vocation, I’ll be listening more carefully for what the Spirit wants the people of God to hear.

Dear reader, how do you choose?  When the text isn’t obvious and the message isn’t clear, how do you discern what to preach?  I’ll be praying for you as you do your homework.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Day Clean

I love sleep.  The refreshment of the Sunday post-church clergy nap.  The joy of sliding into clean sheets.  The cocoon of comfort under the covers while the ceiling fan swirls cool air all around.  I love sleep.  So it is that I noticed with some trepidation yesterday this idea that in John’s Revelation of the new heaven and the new earth that there will be no night.  If, in fact, the glories of heaven are beyond even my wildest imagination, then at the very minimum, it will include biscuits and gravy, some sort of non-injurious football, and the opportunity to sleep.

As this somewhat ridiculous mental exercise was bouncing around in my head yesterday, the pilgrimage in which I am journeying took a tour of about three blocks of Savannah, Georgia from the River where slave ships docked to the slave auction block that sat in the shadow and under the protection of Christ Episcopal Church.  Our guide, the operator of Underground Tours of Savannah, Sister Patt, is a descendent of the Gullah Geechee people and those among the 14 different tribes stolen from the Golden Coast and sold into slavery in the United States.  Sister Patt shared with us some of the customs and language of the Gullah Geechee, including this concept of “Day Clean.”

2019-05-23 06.20.52

For the Gullah Geechee, sunrise is Day Clean, it is God wiping the slate clean for a fresh start.  As it says in Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  Each morning is an opportunity to choose, yet again, to live for the Kingdom of God, to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  In 21st century America, we almost live without night and the natural cycles of time.  Each day is not its own, but part of a never ending slog toward progress.  The hamster wheel never slows down.  But if we are intentional about marking time, as our ancestors did, I think this concept of Day Clean can be of great value.  It is a way to honor the good and the bad that happened yesterday, to offer it to God, and then to start the day fresh, forgiven, restored, and working toward a more hopeful future.

As I sat on the beach at Isle of Palms, SC this morning, I gave thanks for the opportunity of a new beginning, a fresh start, a Day Clean, as I seek to discern how God is calling me to take what I’ve learned and experienced during this week into my life and my ministry. I wish for you, dear reader, the chance to experience a Day Clean for yourself.