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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Challenge of Unity

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On the average Sunday at Saint Paul’s, there will be 150(+/-) people gathering in the same space to worship God, to hear the word read and proclaimed, and to receive nourishment in  Christ’s body and blood.  And while we all come to the same place, we are far from the vision of unity that is often lifted up as the hoped for fruit of Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  We are 7:30 and 10 o’clock.  We are young and old and somewhere in between.  We are deeply committed to our faith and not quite sure what it is all about.  We are apostles, disciples, seekers, and skeptics.  We are worship and doubt; joy and anxiety; intellect and feelz – some of us all at the same time.  Each person arrives on Sunday in need of something different.  Expand that out to include all 1.8m Episcopalians, the roughly 226m Christians in the US, and the maybe 2.2b Christians world wide, and it seems like we are falling woefully short of Jesus’ prayer that we all might be one.

Unity is a challenge because each of us comes to our faith through the lens of our own life experiences.  Some have been deeply rooted in the practices of Christianity since a young age.  They are deeply devoted to a life of prayer, corporate worship, and Bible study.  They listen for the Spirit at work in their lives.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  Others are relatively new to the faith.  They are learning the practices of Christianity maybe in fits and starts.  They are striving to hear the voice of God amid the cacophony of other voices.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  In America, in 2016, in the midst of one of the worst election seasons on record, with three of the four top candidates professing the Christian faith, it is clear that unity is still a long way off.  However, as disciples of Jesus, it seems foolish for us to not strive after the fulfillment of Jesus final words before his arrest.

How do we find unity amid such diversity?

Just as his prayer comes to an end, Jesus speaks a deep truth that we ought not miss in all the unity language.  “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  Even as we struggle to find unity with those in the pews around us; those who work in our offices; those who live in our neighborhoods; those who vote in our precincts; it is important to remember that the source of the unity for which Jesus prays is the love of God in us.  In order to acknowledge God’s love for me, I have to also be willing to acknowledge God’s love for my neighbor who votes the wrong way, drives the wrong vehicles, owns the wrong number of guns, and worships in the wrong church.  Across all the things of this world that would pull us toward disunity, the love of God serves as the great unifying force.  God’s love for each and every individual he has created is the underlying factor in every push toward unity in the church.  To recognize the love of God in another is to recognize their inherent dignity which serves as the starting point of unity.

The Tree of Life

Most every morning, I read three things: Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, Brother Give us a Word from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and God Pause from Luther Seminary and WorkingPreacher.org.  Some mornings are more hurried than others.  Sometimes, I able to just sit and soak in some meditative time, while other days, I’m reading from my iPhone screen in the parking lot at my daughter’s school.  This morning was one of those hurried times, but thankfully God spoke to me in the midst of my harried existence.

Today’s God Pause reflection was written by Tim Kellgren, a retired Lutheran Pastor, who richly opened up Sunday’s Revelation text.  It reads, in part, as follows:

In this reading from Revelation, the early church creates a grand visual aid for embracing God: God is the source of light in a time when darkness was a source of fear and unknowing; God is a flowing river in a dry land where water means life; God is an abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources.

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I’ve never done much work in the Book of Revelation.  As such, I’ve never dealt with the vast array of images that John used to describe the things he saw in his vision.  For some reason  this morning, the image of the “abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources” really struck me.  Maybe it is because my eldest child attends an elementary school with a nearly 80% free and reduced lunch rate.  Maybe it is because the Episcopal Church is statistically much older than the general population in which roughly 10% of senior citizens faces food insecurity.  Maybe it is because of the increasingly loud political rhetoric around “hand outs” and “entitlement programs” which ensure that American citizens, especially the young and the elderly, those most vulnerable, don’t go to bed hungry on a regular basis.  Whatever it is, I’ve come to realize just how radical a vision John is having when he sees the tree of life which offers fresh fruit each month, giving a world that was vastly more food insecure than 21st century America, the promise that God will provide: especially for those who can’t help themselves who don’t fit into the power system.

If John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is compelling today, imagine how much more it would have spoken to an oppressed church in a starving backwater place like the Sinai Peninsula in the sprawling Roman Empire.  Thanks be to God for a vision of a world where there is enough for everyone, but next comes the hard part.  How do we follow the words of our Lord’s Prayer and make this heavenly vision happen on earth, right now?

The Abiding Place of God

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“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” color woodcut by Irving Amen

John’s Gospel message can be summed up in several different ways.  For many, the heart of the Johannine message is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that any who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”  That’s a good one, and so is the very next one, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  There are also the seven “I am” statements in which Jesus not-so-subtly declares himself by the unspeakable name of God.  Those are a pretty powerful witness to Jesus as well.  Others might look to Jesus’ statement mission in 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  All good, I tell you, all good.

However, as I read the first Gospel lesson choice for Sunday, I was struck by another thematic highlight in John’s Gospel, the abiding place of God.  It begins in the Prologue with John’s famous verse, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson says it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  That verb, to dwell/abide/move in, reappears in noun form twice in the fourteenth chapter.  The first time is in the famous funeral lesson line that is represented in the Irving Amen woodcut above: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”  Other translations say “dwelling places.”

It occurs again in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, as Jesus promised Judas (not Iscariot) and the rest of the disciples that God: Father, Son and (maybe) Holy Spirit will make make God’s abiding place alongside those who love Jesus and follow his commandment to love one another.  So it is that as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and be enthroned on the cross as the King of kings, he assures them that his death won’t be the end of God’s plan to live in our neighborhood.  In fact, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God will make room for more than just the Son to abide among us, but for the fullness of the Triune God to abide with those who strive to be disciples of the Gospel of love.

The Beginning of a Controversy

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“Now that day was the sabbath.”

The end of Sunday’s gospel lesson tells you that there is much more to come, even if the Revised Common Lectionary won’t give it to us.  If you’ve decided to go with the second Gospel lesson (John 5:1-6), please note that the other lessons are fairly short, and you could exercise the rubric found on page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  I would encourage you to do so because it isn’t just that last line that is so juicy, but the whole story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha opens up the beginning of what will be a fairly drawn out controversy over Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

Typical healing stories use one of two words to describe what Jesus does for those in need of help.  He either iaomai  heals them or he sozo heals them.  Iaomi seems to be a fairly generic word for healing or restoration, while sozo carries with it a double meaning of physical and spiritual healing, salvation, and wholeness.  However, in this story’s full incarnation (John 5:1-18), the word that is five times translated as “made well” is hugies, which occurs only one other time in John’s Gospel, at 7:23.  The reprise of hugies at 7:23 comes in the midst of an ongoing argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that seems to stem from Jesus healing this particular lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha on the sabbath.

Given that we are coming to the end of Eastertide, it might seem odd to take the time to rehash the controversy that, in John’s Gospel, at least, would lead the Jewish leaders to seek a way to have Jesus killed, but perhaps that is some merit in telling the full story of the lame man’s healing.  We see in John’s use of the word hugies, another double meaning.  To be hugies is to be sound physically and sound in teaching. As Jesus heals on the sabbath, an act which according to the law was not hugies, John makes the bold claim that the proper thing, the sound teaching, is the compassionate response of Jesus to the man who had been lame for 38 years.  Perhaps this story is an opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves and our congregations whether or not we are focused on the hugies of the world.  Or, have we, like the Jewish leadership, become so bogged down in the rule or, more likely these days, the platform of one of the political parties, that we’ve forgotten that the sound response to need in the world – need for healing and need for the desire to be healed – is compassion?

The Problem with John’s Revelation

Easter season in Year C of the lectionary brings with it a six week jaunt through John’s Revelation.  Since we are coming up on the fifth Sunday of Easter, I’m a bit late in bringing this to your attention, but maybe set a reminder for Lent 2019 with the note, “prayerfully consider a preaching series on Revelation during Eastertide.”  I suspect you won’t follow through on it, but you might.  Our people hear so much garbage about Revelation(s) in the popular religious culture, that it might behoove us to give them some decent eschatological theology once every three years or so.  I might consider such a preaching series the next time Year C rolls around, but I’ll have to spend some serious time working through a fundamental flaw in John’s Revelation that we will hear this Sunday.

As John describes the new heaven and the new earth that God will establish after Satan is finally defeated, he notes only one key characteristic:

the sea was no more

I am not a big fan of sand.  I don’t particularly enjoy spending a day sitting on the beach, but even I can appreciate the beauty of the waves crashing against the shoreline.  My children have grown up with the Gulf of Mexico coursing through their veins.

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A new heaven and a new earth that doesn’t have a beach is not a place that I’m keen to go.  Now let’s be clear.  I’ve got my tongue planted firmly in my cheek here.  I’m not suggesting that these images from John’s Gospel are to be taken literally.  Instead, I am taking umbrage with John’s projection of a pre-modern mythology of water onto God’s desire for the new creation.  Water was, for the majority of human history, a symbol of chaos.  This is why the first thing God does in creation is to send his Spirit to hover over the water.  The choas of the deep must first be overcome by order, and so a dome is established to push back the water creating the sky.  The waters that were left over had to be brought into order by being walled off by land.  The great flood of Noah was an undoing of creation: chaos once again reigned as the ark floated perilously over the earth.

The pre-modern world was very much afraid of the power of water, and so it is only logical that as John envisioned what God’s perfect new creation might look like, he couldn’t imagine the sea being a part of it.  In some ways, I think we can understand that.  We see the power that water can have when the flood waters rise.  We know that large bodies of warm water hold within them the potential energy for hurricanes of great magnitude.  We’ve seen the movies with great ships been tossed around like paper boats.  Yet, in our age, we have come to also understand the benefits of the sea.  The currents help create weather patterns.  There is increasing awareness of the possibility of tidal forces being used to create electric power.  And let’s not forget the great bounty of the sea that I so much enjoy about living life at sea level.  Perhaps a 21st century John of Patmos would have seen the new heaven and new earth in a much different way.

There is a lot of teaching potential in John’s Revelation. As you think about preaching a series on it three years from now, you might want to carefully consider how this  great socio-political apocalyptic vision of John intersects with our life today.  What did John see that was impacted by his time and place, and how might our vision of God’s dream be different today?  First and foremost, I’m sure that the new earth will have some sugar sand beaches and a sea as clear as crystal.

Making all things new

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I know what you are thinking.  The whole butterfly metaphor for new lift is so cliche’ and rife with the possibility of heresy.  I totally get that initial reaction.  I probably would have had it too had FBC not received this live butterfly garden kit for her seventh birthday.  The cool thing about this insectarium in a box is that it doesn’t come with freeze dried butterflies (I’m not sure how you’d make them travel-worthy).  Instead, it comes with baby caterpillars.  You get to watch them gain nutrition from the biological sludge in the bottom of their cup and grow into their full stature.  Most recently, they’ve moved from larva to pupa, each one forming a chrysalis which is now ready for the terrifying-to-me move from the safety of their plastic cup to the new world of their butterfly garden.  Watching the wonder in my two girls as they notice each change along the way has given new meaning to the word from the one sitting on the throne in John’s Revelation:

“See, I am making all things new.”

Even before the chrysalises had formed, every morning my daughters could see that something new was happening in that tiny plastic cup.  As I think about the promise of God in John’s Revelation, I can’t help but realized that I have stopped being able to see the world with the same sort of wonder.  I don’t wake up looking for the new things God is doing in the world, but if I believe the Scriptures, and take seriously the words Jesus taught me to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then every day, little by little, God must be doing something new in the world.  Perhaps I should add to my prayers that God might “open my eyes to see his hand at work in the world about me.”

What about you, dear reader?  Are you able to see the new things that God is doing in your world?  Where is God calling you to meet him?  What blessing has God prepared for you that maybe you just can’t recognize yet?  Where is the spring of the water of life bursting forth in your little corner of the Kingdom?  Last week, I prayed that our ears might be open to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Today, my prayer is that our eyes might be open to see with joy and wonder the new thing God is doing in our midst.

With whom do you eat?

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There is a lot to love about Pirates Cove in Josephine, Alabama. Legend has it that the hamburger served as the muse for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  The Bushwackers are legendary and poured with a strong hand by just friendly enough barkeeps.  The beach is littered with boats of all shapes, sizes, and seaworthiness.  But my favorite part of Pirates  Cove is the eclectic clientele.  On any given afternoon, you can find yourself enjoying a cheeseburger and a cold beer next a penniless alcoholic, a college student looking for a bit too much fun, a family of four trying to keep it all together, and a multi-millionaire.  It is the sort of crowd that would have made the circumcised believers in Jerusalem pretty uncomfortable.

In the culture of first century Palestine, eating with someone was the sign of an intimate friendship.  With elaborate washing rituals, a general lack of understanding around food born illnesses, reclining on the floor next to each other, and eating without silverware, you can imagine that one might be careful when deciding on what and with whom you are going eat.  When the leadership in Jerusalem hears that Peter has been eating foods considered unclean with people who are considered unclean, we can imagine that they get pretty nervous, pretty quickly.

“Why do you eat with them?”

Peter’s response is a risky one, both in his era and in ours: “The Spirit told me to make no distinction between them and us.”  The tendency to overindulge in frosty cold alcoholic beverages notwithstanding, it seems to me that Peter is suggesting that the Kingdom of God is like Pirates Cove.  It is a place where the only distinction that gets made is between those who choose fries over the delicious onion rings.  People of all socioeconomic stripes gather together and eat with one another, sharing the commonality of our shared status as children of God, enjoying the fruit of God’s good creation on a beautiful piece of sandy back bay beachfront property.  Does your community have a place like Pirates Cove?  A place like Cornelius’ house?  A place where all can come together with the potential energy of the Holy Spirit to change a people and build the kingdom?